Blog post by Randi Richardson
After agreeing to accept a commission from the Central Board of the Methodist Church to serve as a missionary in California during 1849, Isaac Owen of Monroe County, Indiana, began placing ads in various newspapers soliciting individuals who might want to travel West with him as part of a wagon company. The following ad was published in the Spencer (IN) Republican, January 27, 1849, p. 8: “The Bloomington, Indiana, company bound for California will leave Bloomington February 20, 1849, spend Sabbath the 25th of February at Terre Haute, Indiana, and rendezvous at St. Joseph, Mo., April 23, at which time and place all persons wishing to join the company will please report themselves to the undersigned with the necessary outfit. The outfit will consist of one strong, two-horse wagon and three yoke of oxen, or an equal team of mules, to four persons, suitable camp utensils and a suitable supply of provisions. Each adult male must have one good rifle gun and a good supply of ammunition, a suitable supply of clothing for the journey and a suitable supply of medicines. After the company leaves St. Joseph, Mo., mutual aid will be given to each other. Good moral character will be required of all applying for admission into the company with satisfactory assurances that the Sabbath will be observed when practicable. –Isaac Owen”
On February 20, the day of the departure, arrived, Rev. Isaac Owen and his party of emigrants took their leave from the Bloomington Methodist Church. The wagons, all laden and ready for starting, assembled at 10 AM and spent an hour in religious exercises. Each emigrant was presented with a bible by the Monroe County Bible Society, and the company took up the line of march for the Land of Promise. About 2,000 people gathered to say farewell to their departing friends.
Unfortunately, there is no list of names of the emigrants who made up Isaac’s wagon company. However, a few names have been discovered among various sources. Numbered among them were: Craven P. Hester who was a member of the Bloomington Methodist Church; Dr. B. A. Allison, William E. Taylor, E. Patrick, J. W. Archer and H. Coffey, all of Owen County; James Corwin, a close friend of Isaac’s; Noah Palmer, age 29, of Orange County; and Jonathan M. Nichols, a native of Tennessee who lived for lived for a time in Monroe County but was living in Rockville, Parke County, Indiana, at the time he left on the wagon train.
After a long and tedious journal of 500 miles, the wagon train reached St. Joseph, Missouri, on April 18. A few more members were added to the train at that place which brought the total number to 134 beside women and children. According to Isaac’s open letter published in the Brookville (IN) American on June 15, 1849, the group included a goodly number of church members, four Methodist preachers and one Cumberland Presbyterian. He also reported that some members of the company made no “very great pretentions to morality.” Consequently, certain bylaws were passed prohibiting Sabbath-breaking, card playing, gambling, swearing and drunkenness.
Isaac indicated that the train crossed the Missouri River at St. Joseph on May 8 and 9 with some difficulty due to the “great press of the ferry.” On the 12th, they were delayed because a wagon from St. Louis was stuck in a small creek where everyone needed to cross. Twelve yoke of oxen from Isaac’s train were hitched to the wagon but human assistance was still required to free the vehicle.
Isaac penned his letter on May 14, 1849, a rainy Sabbath. That was the same day he reportedly saw the first Indian huts on the road West. He noted that the Indians of the region were Iowas, Sioux and Foxes and described them as poor and filthy. Brother Corwin is said to have preached to the camp at 3 PM. Unfortunately, the rain prohibited Isaac from writing more, and his letter was hastily mailed.
If Isaac later sent more letters for publication in Indiana newspapers, none have been found. In fact, no more was heard from Isaac until his arrival in California.
Watch for a continuation of this story in next week’s blog: In Search of Gold: Isaac Owen in the Land of Gold and Opportunity
- Indianapolis (IN) Sentinel, March 3, 1849, p. 3.
- Indianapolis (IN) Journal, December 25, 1848, p. 2.
- Blanchard, History, 480.
- Owen County (IN) Republican, March 31, 1849.
- “1851: Isaac Owen to Elizabeth S. (Hardin) Owen,” January 22, 1851, Spared & Shared 3: Rescuing Family History One Letter at a Time, viewed online at https://sparedshared3.wordpress.com/letters/1851-rev-isaac-owen-to-elizabeth-s-hardin-owen/ in January 2019.
- Phil Brigandi, “The Palmer-Hilligass Family,” Old Orange County Courthouse: A Centennial History (San Antonio TX: Historical Publishing Network, 2001), p. 92.
12. Portrait and Biographical Record of Montgomery, Parke and Fountain Counties: Containing Biographical Sketches of Prominent and Representative Citizens Together with Biographies and Portraits of